The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa, by Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook, , at sacred-texts.com
The Princess Zeb-un-Nissa was the eldest daughter of the Mogul Emperor Aurungzebe of India, and was born in 1639. She came of a distinguished line, in direct descent from Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane. Her Emperor-ancestors were famous not only for their valour and statesmanship, but as patrons and inspirers of art and learning, and, moreover, they themselves possessed distinguished literary gifts. Baber's reminiscences are written in so fresh and delightful a style that their charm holds us to-day, and he wrote poetry both in Turki and Persian, even inventing a new style of verse. One of his sons, Mirza Kamran, was also a writer of Persian verse. Although Akbar has given the world no writings of his own—tradition even says that he never found time to learn to write—yet he surrounded himself with a most cultured circle; and Abul Fazl, his talented minister, constantly records in his letters Akbar's wise sayings and noble sentiments. Jehangir, like Baber, wrote his own memoirs, and they are ranked high in Persian
literature. Shah Jehan wrote some account of his court and of his travels, and a record called the Dastur-ul-Amal, or Laws of Shah Jehan. Aurungzebe wrote books on Musulman law, and the collection of his letters, called the Ruqat Alamgiri, is famous. Nor was this literary talent confined to the men's side of the house. Baber's daughter, Gulbadan, wrote some history of her own times, and has left us an interesting picture of Baber himself; and Zeb-un-Nissa's verses still testify to her skill as a poet.
It is difficult to learn precisely the details of her life; they were not written in any connected biography, for in her later days she incurred the wrath of her stern father, and no court chronicler dared to speak of her. Her mother was Dilrus Banu Begum, daughter of Shah Nawaz Khan. From her childhood she showed great intelligence, and she was instructed from an early age. At seven years old she was a Hafiz—she knew the Koran by heart; and her father gave a great feast to celebrate the occasion. We read that the whole army was feasted in the great Maidan at Delhi, thirty thousand gold mohurs were given to the poor, and the public offices were closed for two days. She was given as teacher a lady named Miyabai, and learned Arabic in four years; she then studied mathematics and astronomy, in which sciences she gained rapid proficiency. She began to write a commentary
on the Koran, but this was stopped by her father. From her early youth she wrote verses, at first in Arabic; but when an Arabian scholar saw her work he said: "Whoever has written this poem is Indian. The verses are clever and wise, but the idiom is Indian, although it is a miracle for a foreigner to know Arabian so well." This piqued her desire for perfection, and thereafter she wrote in Persian, her mother-tongue. She had as tutor a scholar called Shah Rustum Ghazi, who encouraged and directed her literary tastes. She wrote at first in secret, but he found copies of her verses among her exercise-books. He prophesied her future greatness, and persuaded her father to send all over India and Persia and Kashmir to find poets and to invite them to come to Delhi to form a fitting circle for the princess. This was the more wonderful as Aurungzebe himself cared little for poetry and used to speak against the poet's calling. He had forbidden the works of Hafiz to be read in school by boys, or in the palace by the Begums, but he made an exception in favour of Zeb-un-Nissa.
Among the poets of her circle were Nasir Ali, Sayab, Shamsh Wali Ullah, Brahmin, and Behraaz. Nasir Ali came from Sirhind, and was famous for his pride and his poverty, for he despised the protection of the great. Zeb-un-Nissa admired his verses, and in a way he came
to be regarded almost as her rival poet. Her coterie used to engage in a poetical tournament—a kind of war of wits. One would propose a line—sometimes it would be a question; another would answer it or contradict it or qualify it or expand it, by a line or lines in the same metre, rhyming with the original line. This is called mushaira—a poetical concourse; and in this quick repartee Zeb-un-Nissa excelled.
She had been betrothed by the wish of Shah Jehan, her grandfather, to Suleiman Shikoh, who was her cousin and son of Dara Shikoh; but Aurungzebe, who hated and feared Dara, was unwilling that the marriage should take place, and caused the young prince to be poisoned. She had many other suitors for her hand, but she demanded that she should see the princes and test their attainments before a match was arranged. One of those who wished to marry her was Mirza Farukh, son of Shah Abbas II of Iran; she wrote to him to come to Delhi so that she might see what he was like. The record remains of how he came with a splendid retinue, and was feasted by Zeb-un-Nissa in a pleasure-house in her garden, while she waited on him with her veil upon her face. He asked for a certain sweetmeat in words which, by a play of language, also meant a kiss, and Zeb-un-Nissa, affronted, said: "Ask for what you want from our kitchen." She told her father
that, in spite of the prince's beauty and rank, his bearing did not please her, and she refused the marriage. Mirza Farukh, however, sent her this verse: "I am determined never to leave this temple; here will I bow my head, here will I prostrate myself, here will I serve, and here alone is happiness." Zeb-un-Nissa answered: "How light dost thou esteem this game of love, O child. Nothing dost thou know of the fever of longing, and the fire of separation, and the burning flame of love." And so he returned to Persia without her.
She enjoyed a great deal of liberty in the palace: she wrote to many learned men of her time, and held discussions with them. She was a great favourite with her uncle Dara Shikoh, who was a scholar and wide-minded and enlightened. To him she modestly attributed her verses when first she began to write, and many of the ghazals in the Diwan of Dara Shikoh are by her. She came out in the court, and helped in her father's councils, but always with the veil upon her face. Perhaps she liked the metaphor of the face hidden till the day when the Divine Belovèd should come; perhaps life behind carven lattices had a charm for her; for her pen-name is Makhfi, the hidden one. Once Nasir Ali said this verse: "O envy of the moon, lift up thy veil and let me enjoy the wonder of thy beauty." She answered:—
She was deeply religious, but she was a Sufi, and did not share her father's cold and narrow orthodoxy. One day she was walking in the garden, and, moved by the beauty of the world around her, exclaimed, "Four things are necessary to make me happy—wine and flowers and a running stream and the face of the Belovèd." Again and again she recited the couplet; suddenly she came upon Aurungzebe, on a marble platform under a tree close by, wrapt in meditation. She was seized with fear, thinking he might have heard her profane words; but, as if she had not noticed him, she went on chanting as before, but with the second line changed, "Four things are necessary for happiness—prayers and fasting and tears and repentance!"
She belonged, like her father, to the Sunni sect of Musulmans, and was well versed in controversial
religious points. One of Aurungzebe's sons, Muhammad Ma’uzam, was a Shiah, and when sectarian disputes took place in the court the princess was often asked to settle them. Her decision in one dispute is famous, for it was copied and sent to Iran and Turan, and many scores of Begums are said to have been converted to the Sunni cause on that occasion. At first she took great pleasure in the Tazia celebrations, but gave them up at her father's wish when he came to the throne, and adopted a simpler form of faith.
Much of her personal allowance of four lakhs a year she used in encouraging men of letters, in providing for widows and orphans, and in sending every year pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. She collected a fine library and employed skilled caligraphers to copy rare and valuable books for her; and, as Kashmir paper and Kashmir scribes were famous for their excellence, she had a scriptorium also in that province, where work went on constantly. Her personal interest in the work was great, and every morning she went over the copies that had been made on the previous day. She had contemporary fame as a poet, and literary men used to send their works for her approval or criticism, and she rewarded them according to their merits.
In personal appearance she is described as
being tall and slim, her face round and fair in colour, with two moles, or beauty-spots, on her left cheek. Her eyes and abundant hair were very black, and she had thin lips and small teeth. In Lahore Museum is a contemporary portrait, which corresponds to this description. She did not use missia for blackening between the teeth, nor antimony for darkening her eye-lashes, though this was the fashion of her time. Her voice was so beautiful that when she read the Koran she moved her hearers to tears. In dress she was simple and austere; in later life she always wore white, and her only ornament was a string of pearls round her neck. She is held to have invented a woman's garment, the angya kurti, a modification, to suit Indian conditions, of the dress of the women of Turkestan; it is now worn all over India. She was humble in her bearing, courteous, patient, and philosophic in enduring trouble; no one, it is said, ever saw her with a ruffled forehead. Her chief friend was a girl named Imami, a poet like herself. Zeb-un-Nissa was skilled in the use of arms, and several times took part in war.
In the beginning of 1662 Aurungzebe was taken ill, and, his physicians prescribing change of air, he took his family and court with him to Lahore. At that time Akil Khan, the son of his vizier, was governor of that city. He was
famous for his beauty and bravery, and was also a poet. He had heard of Zeb-un-Nissa, and knew her verses, and was anxious to see her. On pretence of guarding the city, he used to ride round the walls of the palace, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. One day he was fortunate; he caught sight of her on the house-top at dawn, dressed in a robe of gulnar, the colour of the flower of the pomegranate. He said, "A vision in red appears on the roof of the palace." She heard and answered, completing the couplet: "Supplications nor force nor gold can win her." She liked Lahore as a residence, and was laying out a garden there: one day Akil Khan heard that she had gone with her companions to see a marble pavilion which was being built in it. He disguised himself as a mason, and, carrying a hod, managed to pass the guards and enter. She was playing chausar with some of her girl friends, and he, passing near, said: "In my longing for thee I have become as the dust wandering round the earth." She understood and answered immediately: "Even if thou hadst become as the wind, thou shouldst not touch a tress of my hair." They met again and again, but some rumour reached the ears of Aurungzebe, who was at Delhi, and he hastened back. He wished to hush up the matter by hurrying her into marriage at once. Zeb-un-Nissa demanded freedom
of choice, and asked that portraits of her suitors should be sent to her; and chose naturally that of Akil Khan. Aurungzebe sent for him; but a disappointed rival wrote to him: "It is no child's play to be the lover of a daughter of a king. Aurungzebe knows your doings; as soon as you come to Delhi, you will reap the fruit of your love." Akil Khan thought the Emperor planned revenge. So, alas for poor Zeb-un-Nissa! at the critical moment her lover proved a coward; he declined the marriage, and wrote to the king resigning his service. Zeb-un-Nissa was scornful and disappointed, and wrote: "I hear that Akil Khan has left off paying homage to me"—or the words might also mean, "has resigned service"—"on account of some foolishness." He answered, also in verse, "Why should a wise man do that which he knows he will regret?" (Akil also means, a wise man). But he came secretly to Delhi to see her again, perhaps regretting his fears. Again they met in her garden; the Emperor was told and came unexpectedly, and Zeb-un-Nissa, taken unawares, could think of no hiding-place for her lover but a deg, or large cooking-vessel. The Emperor asked, "What is in the deg?" and was answered, "Only water to be heated." "Put it on the fire, then," he ordered; and it was done. Zeb-un-Nissa at that moment thought more of her reputation than of her
lover, and came near the deg and whispered, "Keep silence if you are my true lover, for the sake of my honour." One of her verses says, "What is the fate of a lover? It is to be crucified for the world's pleasure." One wonders if she thought of Akil Khan's sacrifice of his life.
After this she was imprisoned in the fortress of Salimgarh, some say because her father distrusted her on account of her friendship with her brother, Prince Akbar, who had revolted against him; others say because of her sympathy with the Mahratta chieftain Sivaji. There she spent long years, and there she wrote much bitter poetry:—
So long these fetters cling to my feet! My friends have become enemies, my relations are strangers to me.
What more have I to do with being anxious to keep my name undishonoured when friends seek to disgrace me?
Seek not relief from the prison of grief, O Makhfi; thy release is not politic.
O Makhfi, no hope of release hast thou until the Day of Judgment come.
Even from the grave of Majnun the voice comes to my ears—"O Leila, there is no rest for the victim of love even in the grave."
I have spent all my life, and I have won nothing but sorrow, repentance, and the tears of unfulfilled desire:—
If on the Day of Reckoning
Long shalt thou wait, thy heart within thee burning,
Looking thus forward to thy home-returning.
But now what home hast thou, unfortunate?
The years have passed and left it desolate,
The dust of ages blows across its gate.
God say, "In due proportion I will pay
And recompense thee for thy suffering,"
Lo, all the joys of heaven it would outweigh;
Were all God's blessings poured upon me, yet
He would be in my debt.
If on the Day of Reckoning
When her memory was becoming dim in the hearts of her friends, Nasir Ali alone thought of her, and wrote a poem to her, saying that, now, the world could not delight in her presence, and he himself had to go about the earth unhappy, having no one but himself to appreciate his verses. But she sent no answering word.
When she was released she lived solitary in Delhi, and the verses she wrote there are very melancholy, telling of the faithlessness of the times:—
Why shouldst thou, O Makhfi, complain of friends, or even of enemies? Fate has frowned upon thee from the beginning of time.
Let no one know the secrets of thy love. On the way of love, O Makhfi, walk alone. Even if Jesus seek to be thy companion, tell him thou desirest not his comradeship.
Here is one of her saddest poems, expressing something of the tragedy of her life:—
O useless eyes, O foolish springs, O fading rose,
Never the lost Beloved have ye caressed:
Better that ye were broken than like this
Empty and cold eternally to rest.
Never the lost Beloved for all these years
Have ye beheld: better that ye were blind
Than dimmed thus by my unavailing tears.
That bring not the Beloved to my abode;
Yea, all the friends of youth have gone from me,
Each has set out on his appointed road.
Dying unseen as hidden thou wert born;
So my heart's blossom fallen in the dust
Was ne’er ordained His turban to adorn.
O useless eyes,
O foolish springs,
O fading rose,
She died in 1689 after seven days' illness, and was buried in her garden at Nawakot, near Lahore, according to the instructions she left. The tomb is desolate now, although once it was made of fine marbles, and had over its dome a pinnacle of gold; it was ruined in the troublous times of the dissolution of the Mogul Empire. The great gate still stands, large enough for an elephant with a howdah to enter, and within the enclosure is a tower with four minarets, roofed with turquoise and straw-yellow tiles. But the garden that was in its time very splendid, being held second only to that of the Shalimar of Shah Jehan, has disappeared;
and the walls rise up now from the waving fields of grain.
The garden which she laid out in Lahore itself and which was called the Chauburgi, or four-towered, can still be traced by portions of the walls and gates remaining. Three of the turrets over the archway still stand, ornamented with tiles in patterns of cypress-trees and growing flowers, and the gateways have inscriptions in Arabic and Persian. One of these tells that she presented the garden to her old instructress Miyabai.
In 1724, thirty-five years after her death, what could be found of her scattered writings were collected under the name of the Diwan-i-Makhfi, literally, the Book of the Hidden One. It contained four hundred and twenty-one ghazals and several rubais. In 1730 other ghazals were added. Many manuscript copies were made in both India and Persia; some beautifully illuminated examples are known and preserved.
The Diwan-i-Makhfi shares the characteristics of other Sufic poetry—the worship of God under the form of the Beautiful Belovèd, who is adorable but tyrannical, who reduces the lover to abject despair, but at last bestows on him a gleam of hope when he is at the point of death. The Belovèd is the Hunter of the Soul, chasing it like a deer through the jungle of the world:—
It is Thy memory;
I turn to flee, but fall; for over me he casts his snare,
Thy perfumed hair.
Who can escape Thy prison? no mortal heart is free
From dreams of Thee.
The lover is the madman, who for his love is scorned and mocked by the unsympathetic world. The personified Power of Evil, the Enemy, lurks at the devotee's elbow, ready to distract him from the contemplation of God.
The poet was evidently acquainted, not only with the theories of Sufism, but with the practices of the faquirs as well. We read of the assembly of the devout, as in the Dargah at Ajmer to-day: how they greet the morning with floods of tears and deep sighs, how they beat their hearts of stone till the sparks of divine love fly out from them. The hatchet to strike the flinty heart is the symbol of the Sufic poet: one sees it in the portraits of Hafiz and others. There is also the scoffing at the orthodox who meet within the mosque, and the glorification of the more advanced soul to whom all the universe is the temple of God, nay even God himself—"Where I make my prayer—at that place is the Kiblah."
But the poems of Zeb-un-Nissa, in addition to what they share with other Sufic poetry, have a special Indian flavour of their own. She inherited the Akbar tradition of the unification
of religions, and knew not only Islam, but Hinduism and Zoroastrianism also. Her special triumph consists in that she weaves together the religious traditions and harmonizes them with Sufic practices. In some of her poems she hails the sun as the symbol of deity. Constantly she speaks of the mosque and the temple together or antithetically—saying that God is equally in both, or too great to be worshipped in either:—
No Brahman I,
But an idolater,
I bow before the image of my Love,
And worship her:
My sacred thread
I cast away, for round my neck I wear
Her plaited hair instead.
No Brahman I,
Sometimes she even combines the Hindu and Musulman idea:
In the mosque I seek my idol-shrine.
On the Day of Judgment we should have had much difficulty in proving that we were true believers, had we not brought with us our belovèd Kafir idol as a witness.
The glorification or adoration of the pir, or spiritual teacher, is also shown in her poems. He is the intermediary between God and man, and is sometimes symbolized as the Morning Breeze, bringing from the enclosed garden the
fragrance to those, less privileged, who can only stand without the gate.
The Diwan-i-Makhfi is widely read in India, and is highly esteemed. Its verse is chanted in the ecstatic concourses which meet at festivals at the tombs of celebrated saints; so that, although her tomb has been despoiled of the splendour which befitted the resting-place of a Mogul princess, she has the immortality she perhaps would have desired. In one of her verses she says:—I am the daughter of a King, but I have taken the path of renunciation, and this is my glory, as my name Zeb-un-Nissa, being interpreted, means that I am the glory of womankind.
J. D. W.
IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE COMPASSIONATE, THE MERCIFUL